There was a vampire in the basement. Sylvia wasn’t afraid of it, but she was careful not to go down there. She wasn’t stupid. It was faster than her, and stronger, and usually hungry. Father didn’t feed it often- just often enough to keep it alive. If “alive” was the right word. Sylvia didn’t have to be afraid to know that it was a bad idea to get near it, even when it was all chained up like it was. Maybe especially when it was chained up like it was.
She didn’t know how Father had gotten the vampire chained up like that. He evaded the question when she asked. But the vampire was afraid of Dad. Maybe the vampire had always been afraid of Dad, and it had come quietly. Sylvia was proud to have a father so powerful that monsters were afraid of him.
Even if Sylvia had had any friends in her fourth-grade class, she wouldn’t have told them about the vampire. It was a secret. Father had told her not to tell. So she only talked about the vampire with Mother, Father, and her brother Ash.
Ash was afraid of the vampire. She could tell. He got really uncomfortable whenever Sylvia brought it up, and he didn’t even go near the door to the basement, which was silly. If the vampire was chained, then the door was safe. If the vampire wasn’t chained, then nowhere was safe. So it was better not to be worried at all.
Father brought lots of people to see the vampire. Often they brought their children, who stayed upstairs in the living room while Sylvia regaled them with tales of the vampire.
“It’s usually very beautiful,” she said, sitting down on the large easy chair as the two girls that were there that day settled into the soft couch across from her. “Especially when it’s hungry. That’s when you have to be the most careful, because it wants you to come close so it can eat you.”
“It?” Lucia asked, frown small but definite. “It’s an it? Aren’t vampires people?”
“She, then,” Sylvia said, brushing Lucia’s question away with a wave of her hand. “Dad feeds her pig blood, but she really wants human blood. If she ever escapes, she’ll kill Dad first, and then move on to Ash and me and Mom. The vampire hates us,” she added darkly. “But then, it hates all humans.”
“Ooh,” Nellie said, shivering theatrically in a motion that made her long brown braid sway. “That’s so scary!”
Sylvia’s lips curled into a smile. Finally, an appreciative audience.
“I’m not afraid of it,” Sylvia said. She shook her head, and then had to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Besides, it’s weak. There are stronger vampires. Dad says that there are sometimes special vampires, ones that are much stronger and deadlier than the rest. He’s going to find one someday, and kill it. I’m going to follow in his footsteps.”
“You’re so brave!” Nellie said.
Lucia rolled her eyes and picked up the remote from the side table. “I’m bored,” she said. “Let’s see what’s on TV.”
Sylvia didn’t have cable. Mother didn’t want her or Ash watching violent shows.
(“Bad enough we live in a world full of vampires and demons,” she’d said, when Ash had argued. “Real life is bad enough. We don’t need fiction to make it even worse.”)
Lucia didn’t find anything interesting on TV. While she was flipping through the few basic channels that Sylvia’s family did have, the adults came upstairs and began to chat over coffee.
“Let’s go see the vampire,” Lucia said, low enough that the adults in the other room couldn’t hear her.
That was a terrible idea. The vampire was dangerous. Sylvia couldn’t object without looking like a wuss like Ash, though, so she rolled her eyes and said, “If you really want to.”
Nellie wrapped her arms around herself. “Oh, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. It sounds like she’s really scary!”
“I’m not afraid,” Sylvia repeated. “Let’s go down.”
They sneaked past the adults and went into the kitchen.
“Can we have a snack?” Sylvia called out, to prevent anyone from becoming suspicious.
“Sure, honey,” her mother said.
They opened the door to the basement silently, and walked down the stairs without so much as a giggle. This was something they were doing to impress each other, but it wasn’t exactly fun.
The vampire was beautiful right now, with flawless skin and sparkling eyes that seemed to draw Sylvia in. She knew that its hair was matted, its clothes torn, but none of that mattered, next to the way its eyes mesmerized anyone who looked at it.
It was too beautiful, and the way it stood, too still, made it seem almost like a doll. Sylvia had trouble looking away. She didn’t trust it.
“Hello,” it said softly, and it sounded human. It shifted ever-so-slightly, which made it seem more alive.
Sylvia wasn't fooled. She said nothing in return. She merely stared at the vampire with a grim expression. The vampire was afraid of Father. It wasn’t afraid of her. Best not to fall prey to its plans, whatever those plans were. Sylvia did not trust the vampire at all.
“She doesn’t look scary,” Lucia said.
The vampire smiled mildly. Sylvia continued staring at it distrustfully. There was a bit of blood at the corner of its mouth, which it licked away when it saw Sylvia staring. It must have just been fed.
“I’m not scary at all,” the vampire said. “Why don’t you come a little closer, children?”
It smiled again, then, an almost kind smile. None of them moved closer.
“Is it true that vampires don’t have souls?” Lucia asked. “What does that feel like?”
The vampire’s smile faded a little as it realized the chances of making a meal of them were slim.
“It doesn’t feel like anything,” it said. “What does your soul feel like?”
Lucia shrugged, a subtle motion.
They all stared at the vampire for a while longer. Finally, Sylvia said, “I’m bored. Let’s go get some ice cream.”
Nellie latched onto Sylvia’s arm as they went up the stairs, fear forgotten. She spared one last worried look at the vampire as they went.
“Is she lonely down there, do you think?” Nellie asked.
Sylvia scoffed. “She’s not capable of loneliness,” she said. “She’s a monster, not a person.”
When they got to the top of the stairs, Mother was waiting.
“Sylvia,” she said. “You should know better than to go downstairs without asking permission. You could have been hurt. You’re grounded for the next week.”
Sylvia made a pouting face. “But mom, we were really careful.”
“None of that,” Mother said. “Sylvia, go to your room. Your grounding starts now.”
Sylvia sighed, rolled her eyes, and went up to her room, as her mother had ordered.
Sylvia didn’t pay much attention to the vampire after that. There was no one around to impress with her bravery, so the vampire became dull. Lucia and Nellie wouldn’t be back at her house for ages, and it wasn’t not like the vampire was good company, so mostly Sylvia ignored its presence.
It wasn’t hard. Sylvia had schoolwork to do, and her mom had insisted that she take karate lessons each weekend in addition to her hunting classes at home. And while it was boring (if you hit anyone for real, you got yelled at, so what was the point?) it still took time. So did homework, which never ended, dull worksheet after dull worksheet. Sylvia could have finished them at school, but by the time she got to lunch she was exhausted from pretending to be interested all day.
Home was better than school. Dad was at home, and he taught her real fighting, told her the real dangers Sylvia would be up against.
Weeks passed, and if Dad hadn’t still been going down to the basement so often, Sylvia might have let herself forget about the vampire down there.
The vampire hunters in the area met up every couple of months to check in on each other and make sure no one had died. They met at a different person’s house each time, trying to keep the gatherings from becoming conspicuous. This time it was at Lucia’s house, more than two hours away.
Sylvia was going to check if she’d left the book she wanted on the dining room table when she heard arguing. She stayed in the living room, just out of sight, and listened in.
“...perfectly safe,” Dad said. “We’ll be with other hunters- I can’t think of a safer place.”
“You should have killed that thing a long time ago,” Mom said, and her voice was colder than Sylvia had ever heard it before. “I’m not going to have any more part in this harebrained idea of yours. Kill it today, or I'll do it for you.”
Usually Mom and Dad refused to fight where she could hear them. Sylvia was always interested in what they had to say when there were no kids around.
“I’ve learned things you wouldn’t-” Dad started, but there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs coming down from the second floor. Ash was coming.
The conversation was cut short, and Sylvia walked into the dining room, where she had been planning to go all along.
“Have you seen my book?” she asked.
The tension in the room eased as Mom looked around. “It’s not here, honey. Did you check your bag?”
Sylvia shook her head and went to check, passing Ash as she headed back upstairs. She murmured to him, “Mom wants the vampire dead.”
“Good,” he muttered, giving her a half-hearted smile. It made him look more constipated than brave.
Ash was still afraid. Apparently Mom was, too. Sylvia wasn’t afraid, but she did think the vampire might be an unnecessary threat that should be taken care of. That was different than fear.
Her book was in her bag the whole time. She couldn’t focus on reading, though. She kept thinking about monsters that weren’t people, and how only sunshine, the embodiment of goodness and truth, could really kill them for good.
The gathering that evening turned out to be boring. Lucia’s parents were strict, and made the girls play outside the entire time. Ash got to stay and listen, even though he was just two and a half years older. Sylvia tried to listen in at the window, but couldn’t hear anything. There wasn’t even so much as a soccer ball to kick around. Just a perfectly mowed lawn and a short, tasteful hedge that served as a fence.
“We could go to the park down the street,” Lucia said, not sounding particularly enthusiastic about the idea. “We could go on the swings. It might be better than just sitting here.”
Nellie perked up a little at that. “I like the swings,” she said. “Are there any trees to climb?”
“There are trees. You’ll probably get in trouble with your parents if you climb them, though.”
Nellie shrugged. “Let’s go.”
It had rained the night before, so it was muddy at the park, and the swings were still wet. Nellie didn’t seem to mind. She went on the swings anyway, and then climbed into a tree, high up enough that Sylvia worried she would fall. But she didn’t- she climbed down again as gracefully as she’d climbed up, but with a couple of leaves in her hair.
Lucia and Sylvia watched listlessly from the swings as she climbed the next tree, even higher, and climbed down it safely. They listened to cicadas screeching in the treetops. Sylvia halfheartedly pushed herself into motion, but couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to actually get very high.
“I’m bored,” Lucia said. “Let’s go back and see if they’re done yet.”
When Nellie came back down, they returned to the house. They arrived just in time for Sylvia to see her family’s car drive away, taking the turn too fast and leaving skid marks on the road.
A moment later, Mom and Ash came out the door.
“Sylvia,” Mom said. “We’re staying here tonight.”
Sylvia did not understand.
“Why?” she asked.
Ash said, “Dad’s mad,” but Mom shushed him before he said anything else.
Sylvia didn’t want to stay at Lucia’s house. She wanted to go home. But when she complained, Mom walked out of the room without another word.
“This will be fun,” Lucia’s mother said, but her voice did not match her cheerful words. “You can all have a slumber party in Lucia’s room.”
Sylvia frowned, but realized that the adults were not going to tell her any more. She looked at Ash, who still looked unreasonably upset. Dad got angry all the time- why was this time different? Why were they staying here, instead of going home?
“It’s too early for a sleepover,” Lucia pointed out. “It’s still light out.”
“We’ll bake cookies,” her mother said.
“I want to go back to the park,” Nellie said. “There were some good climbing trees there.”
Lucia’s mom’s eyes flicked down to Nellie’s muddy shoes and clothes, and she had to visibly make an effort not to say something about the dirt beyond, “I think Lucia has some clean clothes you can wear tonight, dear.” She bit her lip, and looked uncertain. Sylvia had never seen an adult look so uncertain before. “The park is probably not a good idea,” she finished, finally. “Let’s stay inside for now.” As an afterthought, she added, “where it’s clean.”
Sylvia knew there was something more she wasn’t saying, but she didn’t know what. For now, she just nodded, and followed Lucia and Nellie upstairs to Lucia’s room to look for a change of clothes that would fit Nellie’s slender frame.
It wasn’t long before a storm rolled in. Sylvia usually liked rain, but even the smell of a thunderstorm couldn’t soothe her irritation today. People were hiding things from her. She wished dad were here- he would explain things to her. But that was the whole problem- whatever had everyone on edge, it had to do with dad.
Ash came up to let them know it was dinner time a bit later.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Lucia asked, looking around to make sure no adults were around to shush them before they got answers.
“I went to the bathroom right before it all started,” Ash admitted. “I only heard the end of it. Dad wanted to do something dangerous, and everyone told him not to. But you know how Dad is- he doesn’t change his mind.”
Sylvia nodded. “If that’s all,” she said, “then he’ll be fine. Dad is strong. Even if what he was going to do is dangerous, he can do it.”
Ash shook his head. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “Dad isn’t perfect.”
“Kids,” Nellie’s dad shouted. “Are you going to eat, or not?”
That was the end of the conversation, at least for the time being.
Dinner was silent. After, Lucia’s mom led the girls in making cookies, but it was obvious that none of them really wanted to bake, including Lucia’s mom. The atmosphere was tense, and Sylvia had no idea how to fix it.
She needed Dad back.
The adults let them play a little more before bed. Ash and Lucia read books in the corner while Sylvia and Nellie got into a pillow fight. But the first time Nellie shrieked in delight, three adults rushed in, all armed with crossbows.
“Mom?” Sylvia asked. “What’s going on?”
Mom’s lips got very thin. “Play quietly tonight,” she said, and walked out again. Nellie’s mom and dad looked conflicted, but they followed her out with no explanation.
Sylvia didn’t understand what was going on. What was Mom afraid of? What did she think was coming?
She had too few pieces of the puzzle. Dad was angry after arguing with Mom about the vampire in the basement. Ash said Dad had gone to do “Something dangerous,” but none of the kids knew what.
Maybe Mom had convinced him to kill the vampire. Sylvia could see how that might be dangerous, though for a hunter like Dad it wouldn’t be all that dangerous, especially with the vampire chained up like it was.
If the vampire did get loose, it would want to kill them all. Vampires could not enter a home uninvited- at least, not if the house was warded properly- but it was already in Sylvia’s house. And maybe the adults thought that one of the kids would be stupid enough to let a vampire into this house, too.
Sylvia spent several moments checking the wards around Lucia’s window, just in case something was wrong with them. But the intricate lines carved into the wood of the frame were unbroken, each line carved deeply and carefully, painted over in pale grays and blues. Sylvia didn’t know how to check more than that- the wards at home were shaped differently, carved in oak and inlaid with juniper.
Catching sight of movement in the darkness outside, she looked out the window, past her reflection. For a moment she couldn’t see much, but then she realized who was standing outside on the sidewalk beneath Lucia’s window.
“Dad!” she said, and wrenched the window open. “Dad, dad! You’re back!”
He looked up at her, and there was something weird about the way he looked up but she couldn’t figure out what. She leaned out to see him better.
“Daaaad,” she called.
He looked sick, but he smiled up at her wanly. “Sylvia,” he said.
He took a step backwards, and Sylvia didn’t understand why until the next moment, when he leaped all the way at the window in one bound.
She flinched away again, but she wasn’t quite fast enough. His hand caught her loose sleeve and pulled until he could grab her arm.
She heard Lucia and Nellie scream, but she was too busy gritting her teeth, trying to keep from being pulled out the window. Her hand braced against the window frame, and the wards lit up like a firework, sending sparks along her arm. That part didn’t hurt, but it startled her enough that she nearly let go.
The sparks hurt Dad (No. Not Dad. Not anymore) but they didn’t hurt him enough to make him let go of her. They just made his face twist into something angry, something Sylvia had never before seen directed at her.
The adults ran into the room again, and Sylvia didn’t see who buried a crossbow bolt in Dad’s shoulder, but it was finally enough that he let go of her arm.
She pulled herself fully into the house, and took a step back, and back again.
The thing that had been Dad was clinging to the windowsill still, supporting himself with his fingertips in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for a human. The wards still sparked and sizzled, but he didn’t seem as bothered by them as a vampire was supposed to be. He pulled himself in with what looked like tremendous effort.
“Come with me, Juniper,” he said. “We could be so powerful, together.”
He made it past the window, and the sparking from the wards stopped. The room seemed suddenly dark. Sylvia blinked away after-images.
Mom looked at him, and aimed her crossbow unsteadily at his heart.
Sylvia wanted to run, but the adults were in the door. She took another step back, instead, nearly tripping over Nellie, and found herself backed against Lucia’s closet door. She reached and found the knob, and opened it, all without taking her eyes off of Mom and Dad.
Then she shut herself inside.
She heard the fight that happened after that, the thwack noises of crossbow bolts being embedded in the walls. She sat on the floor, wrapped her arms around her knees. She tried not to cry. She failed.
The fight noises faded, and Sylvia could only assume that the adults had moved elsewhere in the house, or maybe outside.
Her arm hurt where Dad had tried to yank her out the window.
She wanted to pull herself together but had no idea how.
A few moments later, the door opened. Sylvia shrank back deeper into the closet, then saw that it was only Ash.
“Go away,” she said, hiding her face behind her knees.
Ash sat down near her.
“Are you hurt?” he asked. She shook her head, but he said, “Your arm…”
She peeked out, looked at her arm. It was bruised all the way around.
“He grabbed me,” she said, and her voice came out in a squeak that she hated.
Ash said, “He’s gone now.”
“I know,” Sylvia said. She took a deep steadying breath, but it didn’t do anything to calm her down. Her tears started anew.
Ash wasn’t crying. It wasn’t fair. Sylvia was the tough one. Why couldn’t she stop weeping?
“Are you okay?” she asked, through the tears. “He didn’t find you?”
“I was downstairs,” he said, obviously surprised she cared. “I didn’t even see him- mom told me not to follow her.”
Good. She didn’t like Ash, but he was her brother to torment, no one else’s.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Ash asked.
“I’m just-” Sylvia said, but didn’t know how to finish. She couldn’t say “scared,” because she was a hunter from a proud line, and they weren’t supposed to be scared. “Upset” wasn’t right either.
He didn’t say anything else for a while. Nellie and Lucia came back into the room before long, and when Nellie saw Sylvia crying, she burst into tears, too. She pushed past Ash into the closet and sat beside Sylvia, holding onto Sylvia’s arm.
“It was so scary,” Nellie said. “You were smart to hide- Lucia and I ran away when we saw you do that-”
Sylvia wiped her tears hastily on her sleeve. “He was strong,” she admitted. “I couldn’t- there was nothing I could do without a weapon.”
She and Nellie sat there for a long moment, and then Sylvia extricated herself and went to wash her face in the bathroom. She had embarrassed herself enough for one night.
A few more moments, and Nellie’s parents came back.
“The wards here are fried,” Nellie’s dad said. He shook his head. “Not that they seemed to do much, anyway. The others are still out looking for him. We’re taking you children to a safehouse for the rest of the night, one Conway wouldn’t have known about.. Sylvia, are you alright?”
Sylvia nodded. “Just a bit bruised,” she said.
He insisted on looking at the bruise while Nellie’s mom led the kids in grabbing bags for the night. Both of them kept a wary eye on the window the whole time.
They were parked in the driveway, and Sylvia felt the darkness pressing in around her as they walked the short distance to the car.
She didn’t cry again, not that night. The safehouse was several hours away. Nellie’s mom drove them there. There weren’t enough seats in the car for both of Nellie’s parents, so Nellie’s dad stayed behind to help look for Dad.
Sylvia was the smallest of the children, and she ended up squashed in the middle of the backseat between Nellie and Ash. At some point, she fell asleep and woke up later to find she and Nellie had fallen asleep leaning against each other. She considered moving, but the alternative was leaning on Ash, and anyway, Nellie was warm.
They stayed in the safe house for three days with no news. Nellie’s mom tried to keep a cheerful face on for all of them, but Sylvia could tell it was fake.
Sylvia had nightmares, but she couldn’t remember specifics of them when she woke up, just the feeling of being small and unprotected, and a deep sense of fear.
They didn’t talk about it. Instead, Nellie taught her games. First simple ones, like pat-a-cake, then more complicated ones. A day in, they ran out of rhyming games and had to make up their own, one-upping each other in complexity each time.
For moments at a time, Sylvia forgot the sense of dread that everyone was feeling.
The fourth day, Nellie’s mom got a phone call on the safe line. She shooed the children out of the room, and when she came out, her face looked frozen, like she’d forgotten how to use some of the muscles that moved her lips and eyes.
“They’ve given up the hunt,” she said. “They’ll be meeting us here tonight.” She paused, and said, “Lucia, honey… I need to talk to you.”
They walked into the other room for a few minutes. Nellie and Sylvia resumed their clapping game. Lucia came out only a minute later, closing the door gently behind her.
“What’s going on?” Sylvia asked, not looking over, so engrossed in clapping.
“My mother is dead,” Lucia said.
Nellie’s hands stopped short of the next clap.
“Oh, no!” she said. She stood, and Sylvia wasn’t far behind her.
Lucia’s face was streaked with tears. Nellie wrapped her in a hug, but Sylvia didn’t know what to do. She stood nearby, put one hand hesitantly on Lucia’s arm.
When the other adults came home, the atmosphere was somber. Everyone cried- everyone but Sylvia. Sylvia had cried enough.
After a while, Mom took Sylvia and Ash into the other room.
“Your father…” she said, and then stopped.
“He’s a vampire,” Sylvia said. “I’m not dumb, mom. I saw him. He’s… not Dad anymore.”
“That’s right,” Mom said. “But it’s not all. He’d been… toying with this idea for some time. The idea of purposefully letting himself be turned. He had some foolish ideas- spells and herbs he thought would let him retain his humanity but keep the strength that being a vampire would entail. It didn’t work, obviously.”
Ash looked shocked, but it made sense to Sylvia. Something to make humans stronger- something that would give them an edge- of course Dad would want that.
Mom said, “He wanted to turn all of us, once he had it figured out. And he said certain things, as we chased him, that implied he may still want to do that. To turn us, to keep us near, to be… a sick twisted parody of a family.”
She said, “We can’t go home again. The others will help us collect our things. We’re moving somewhere else- I don’t know where, yet. For now, we’ll stay with other hunters. We’ll have to install wards wherever we move, and that takes time.”
Sylvia said, “What about my karate lessons? I have them tomorrow, Mom. What about school?”
Mom kissed the top of her head. “We’ll find a new school, and new karate lessons. It will be okay. You’ll make new friends.”
Sylvia didn’t have any friends at school anyway. She just had Lucia and Nellie, and she suspected, deep down, that they only played with her because their parents wanted them to, or because there was no one else around during the hunting meetings to play with.
She’d never needed friends before. She’d had Dad.
They stayed at Nellie’s house after that, while Mom looked for a new house.
They didn’t go to Lucia’s mom’s funeral. It was too dangerous. Dad might expect them, and he might set a trap of some kind. Instead they stayed at Nellie’s house. Nellie’s family didn’t go, either. Lucia’s dad had enough non-hunter friends that the funeral wouldn’t be empty.
The previous week had been spent warding and re-warding the house and backyard, and the kids were allowed to play outside as long as an adult was within earshot. Nellie climbed the tree in her backyard, and Sylvia followed, reluctantly. It was a plum tree, overripe plums littered the ground around it.
Sylvia wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do, once she was up in the tree. Nellie just sat on a branch and stared into the distance. Sylvia joined her.
“Lucia is sad,” Nellie said.
“Yeah,” Sylvia agreed.
“Are you sad?” Nellie asked, looking over at Sylvia.
Sylvia shrugged, and leaned against the tree trunk. She thought, it wasn’t like Nellie even cared. She was just being nice.
Maybe Nellie wouldn’t care, then, if Sylvia wasn’t strong.
“I’m mad,” Sylvia admitted. “And- and- and Mom said my dad want to turn me into a vampire.” Her voice shook a little as she spoke, and she hated it. She hated this.
“I won’t let that happen,” Nellie said, and Sylvia didn’t understand how silly Nellie could sound so brave when Sylvia couldn’t do it. “We’ll both grow up to be amazing vampire hunters and he won't get you because we’ll find him and kill him first.”
“No!” Sylvia blurted, and then looked away, embarrassed. If there was anything worse than being afraid, it was being sentimental.
Nellie looked at her kindly, and that somehow hurt worse than if she’d scolded Sylvia for being too attached.
(It was what Dad would have done, but Dad was gone)
“He’s not your dad anymore,” Nellie said. “He’s a monster wearing your dad’s face.”
“I know,” Sylvia said, but she wasn’t so sure. (What kind of monster did a person have to be, to make even vampires afraid of them?) To distract herself, she reached up into the branches of the tree they were sitting in and pulled down an overripe plum. She bit into it, sticky-sweet juice running down her chin. Nellie followed suit, and there was quiet for a moment as they enjoyed the fruits.
Then, when they had finished and thrown the cores down to the ground below, Nellie took Sylvia’s hand. The two of them were small and sticky with plum juice, but the look on Nellie’s face was so serious that Sylvia never forgot what she said next.
“You don’t have to do it,” she said . “I can do it for you. But promise me you won’t stand in my way?”
Sylvia didn’t have words to reply. She didn’t know how to accept offers of protection, how to accept gentleness- only how to scorn it. She was supposed to be stronger than this.
She nodded, looking down at her feet.
She didn’t want to be a vampire. She didn’t want Dad to get her.
She was afraid.